Inside Slant: Illinois

The Sports Xchange gives an in-depth look at Northwestern's first Big Ten opponent, the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Illinois coach Ron Zook has a million pet phrases that he relies upon heavily. One of the more yawn-inducing is Zook's insistence that "you can never have enough running backs."

While that's no fun for a fan base or a media corps that prefers to see one Illini pile up a ton of yards and touchdowns — see Rashard Mendenhall in 2007 and Mikel Leshoure in 2010 — that's not the way it's going to work for Illinois this year.

Illinois wrapped up its first 4-0 start since 1951 with a 23-20 victory over Western Michigan on Saturday, but Zook's crew did it with a rushing attack that didn't get much help from senior starter Jason Ford. After he lost a fumble early in the second quarter, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino turned to fifth-year senior Troy Pollard and true freshman Donovonn Young to carry the load.

Pollard delivered a career-high 133 yards in a career-high 14 carries while Young contributed a career-high 100 yards and a touchdown. Their emergence suggests the Illini are going to be a four-headed monster in Big Ten play this season.

As Illinois starts to prepare for Saturday's opener against Northwestern, here's how balanced the nation's No. 14 rushing team has been: Pollard leads the way with 260 yards and 1 TD, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ranks second with 224 yards and 2 TDs, Ford boasts 215 yards with a team-high 4 TDs and Young owns 212 yards with 3 scores.

Pollard, dubbed "Bucket of Hair" by Zook for the long dreadlocks hanging out of his helmet, is the most intriguing piece to this puzzle. He's the only eligible player on Illinois' roster who also saw action for the 2007 team that went to the Rose Bowl. Though Mendenhall was that team's best runner, the 5-foot-8, 190-pound Pollard made an immediate impact as a change-up back. He rushed 13 times for 92 yards on Sept. 15, 2007 at Syracuse, but tore up his right knee the next week against Indiana and was lost for the year.

Due to the injury and the emergence of guys like Leshoure and Ford, Pollard served as a bit player for the last three years. But with Ford the only other veteran on this year's squad, Pollard has stepped forward when given the opportunity. He's averaging 10.4 yards per carry on his 25 attempts.

"I felt like sometimes I don't have (my health) and sometimes I do," Pollard told the Daily Herald. "This year I've been feeling like I have it all the time. I feel as healthy as I've ever been."


—Illinois leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense. The Illini are surrendering just 56.5 rushing yards per game, though that number is a bit deceptive because neither of its last two opponents (Arizona State and Western Michigan) bothered to establish the run. WMU tried just 21 rushes that netted 35 yards. Arizona State tried 34 rushes for 106 yards. Both of those totals include Illinois' 8 sacks for 37 yards.

—Speaking of sacks, Illinois leads the Big Ten both in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (32). Western Michigan QB Alex Carder's 3- and 5-step drops didn't allow the Illini many chances to earn sacks on Saturday, but defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan each got to Carder. Buchanan's play was particularly huge as it occurred during WMU's ill-fated last-minute drive to get into field-goal range. It cost the Broncos valuable yards and seconds. The Illini finished with 6 tackles for loss against WMU, which included a career-high 2.5 TFLs for senior MLB Ian Thomas.

—Illinois is off to its first 4-0 start since 1951. That team went on to the Rose Bowl. The 1963 team, which was led by Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski, started off 3-0-1 and also went to the Rose Bowl.

KEEP AN EYE ON: RB Donovonn Young — The true freshman from Texas delivered his first 100-yard game on Saturday. Fueled by a 59-yard run in the second quarter — when an overload to the right allowed Young to race untouched most of the way before fumbling out of bounds at Western Michigan's 9-yard line — Young finished with 12 carries for 100 yards. Young has shown better burst and balance than senior Jason Ford, so look for him to continue to get carries.

LOOKING GOOD: Junior CB Terry Hawthorne enjoyed one of his finest days as he led Illinois with nine tackles and also broke up three passes. Nickel back Tavon Wilson chipped in seven tackles, one PBU and one quarterback hurry as he played a hybrid position in Illinois' 3-3-5 alignment. Running backs Troy Pollard (133 yards) and Donovonn Young (100 yards) both earned career-highs. DE Michael Buchanan earned a sack and forced a fumble. He and fellow DE Whitney Mercilus combined for six quarterback hurries.

STILL NEEDS WORK: Head coach Ron Zook still doesn't trust freshman punter Justin DuVernois, so he had wide receiver Ryan Lankford utilize the rugby punt on Illinois' first two punting opportunities. The first punt netted 36 yards, but the second one went 21 yards and set up WMU's go-ahead touchdown shortly before halftime. On that touchdown, WMU turned a medium pass into a 35-yard score as safety Supo Sanni whiffed on a tackle in the open field.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think to have a special season you have to win some games like that. Our guys just wouldn't quit. That's two weeks in a row where we kept fighting. You'd rather win ugly than get beat." — Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino in the Champaign News-Gazette. The Illini have won by 3 points two weeks in a row.



—LB Jonathan Brown won the Big Ten's defensive player of the week award for his dominant effort Sept. 17 against Arizona State, but the sophomore didn't start Saturday against Western Michigan because he didn't live up to the coaches' expectations. "For lack of a better way of saying it," said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, "he just didn't completely finish his commitment that he had to do." Brown entered the game for WMU's second series and finished with 4 tackles, but he did not make an impact as he did the week before.

—QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw his second interception in as many weeks, but there should be an asterisk next to it because it came on a Hail Mary pass into the end zone on the final play of the first half. Scheelhaase, who stuck to short routes most of the day, finished 14 of 20 for 133 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. He dropped from sixth to 16th nationally in the pass efficiency ratings (166.22).

—RB Jason Ford started for the fourth straight week, but the senior earned just eight carries (for 23 yards) because he lost a fumble early in the second quarter. Ford, expected to be the team's bellcow this year, has 62 carries for 215 yards (3.5 avg.) and 4 TDs.

—DE Whitney Mercilus posted 1 sack for 7 yards Saturday against Western Michigan. He leads the Big Ten with 4 sacks. That 1 sack per game average is good for a share of sixth place nationally.


—OLB Ashante Williams played for the first time this season. Williams, who was suspended from the team after a DUI arrest in late July, played limited snaps at strong-side linebacker behind senior Trulon Henry. The projected starter will work in more as the season goes along.

—OT Jeff Allen was kicked out of Saturday's game on the final play of the half. Illinois' best lineman was ejected for an apparent flagrant personal foul after finishing a block. Redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic played in his stead, but Allen should be eligible to play in Saturday's Big Ten opener against Northwestern.

—QB Nathan Scheelhaase said he continues to deal with a sore throwing shoulder, but claimed it did not affect his performance against Western Michigan. Backup QB Reilly O'Toole took six snaps as part of Illinois' plan to protect Scheelhaase a little bit. The plan also is designed to get the true freshman some experience in case Scheelhaase suffers a serious injury.

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